If ingredients were the measure of movies, this film would be a masterpiece. Written and directed by Bruce Robinson, the brilliant satirist whose true-life epic of alcoholism at the tail end of the sixties ‘Withnail & I’ is among the greatest comedies of all time and a solid gold cult classic (if you haven’t seen this film, stop what you’re doing and go and rent it immediately!) From a novel by Hunter S Thompson, the genius chronicler of American insobriety who gave us ‘Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas’ and the original 1966 exposé of the Hells Angels. Add to that is deadpan occasional genius/ grown-up gen x pretty boy Johnny Depp who is surely due to remind us why we love him after the increasingly embarrassing Pirates franchise. Then there's Giovanni Ribisi, a hugely underrated actor who starred in what for my money is the greatest death scene in cinema - that of Medic Irwin Wade in ‘Saving Private Ryan’.
In the annals of journalist flicks are many great movies, and this is just about another one. It's a period film, set in 1960 Puerto Rico. Drizzled with Thompson's brilliant invective and hilariously original insults, it is a booze-soaked odyssey of mid-twentieth century social change. Drawn from his only recently published (1998) second novel about a first foreign assignment, it may not be up to the above listed pedigree, but it is a solid and highly watchable effort.
The period garb and adult tone suggest a ‘Chinatown’ dark, ironic noir. Supplemented with Robinson’s customary pathos and sympathy for the human condition. But ‘The Rum Diary’ belongs to a more obscure tradition of American underground fiction. William Burroughs, Charles Bukowski, Jim Dodge. The stories of the grifters and lowlifes and alcoholics who plied their trade during the depression, and whose shady cunning and confidence tricks have pervaded the underside of American imagination ever since.
Kemp, a fictionalized version of the young Thompson, already well on his way to alcoholism, lands a dead-end job for the San Juan Star and arrives in Puerto Rico to be confronted with a mix of unrestrained US chauvinism, a repressed local population and an alarmingly idiosyncratic motley crew of crazy journos clinging to the beleaguered, soon-to-be-closing Star. But Kemp’s old money education also attracts the big money American developers themselves, who want to recruit him to their cause for promoting and marketing purposes. This is an epic of idealism against the lure of corruption and the almighty dollar. And the growing awareness in American intelligentsia circles during the rise of the Kennedy issue of the cynicism that had crept into the American dream.
Thompson’s acid-tipped dialogue scatters all over this movie. It's like Withnail with a social conscience. The elixir of being a part of American expansion at the crest of its power and influence is tantalizing, the ease of the decision not to write the truth for a little more green.
Puerto Rico is a microcosm of the geopolitical issues of the time. Neither geographically nor politically far from the recent Cuban communist revolution, Kemp has to decide whether to smile and accept the comfortable, corporate offer, or become part of the growing voice of intellectual dissent that would coalesce so dramatically during the sixties.
Director Bruce Robinson has been writing books for the last ten years (apparently extremely funny) but it’s great to see him behind the camera again because this feels like his true medium. Anyone who can make ‘Withnail’ can do it again. And there are shades of that potent brew of bittersweet yearning and hilarious comedy all over this colourful, period indie. The subject matter is a match made in heaven, he and Thompson even shared the same artist for their book covers - the phlegmatic Gerald Scarfe, and it is clear he’s not put off by Thompson’s fearless dives into complex and convoluted political issues.
A blistering, incendiary nightclub scene shows us exactly the sensual appeal of the blues-drenched sixties counterculture. Especially to deep and progressive thinkers like the young Thompson on whose real life experiences ‘The Rum Diary’ is based. Ribisi is predictably brilliant as wildcard ‘sports reporter’ Moberg, Amber Heard is adequate but a little vacuous and bland as love interest Chenault, Michael Rispoli solid as sidekick Sala. And it chugs along happily in a mix of sunshine, dry one-liners, satire and moral quandary.
Unfortunately ‘The Rum Diary’ wobbles at the end. A ‘euphoric’ climax does not really convince. The final section is loose in the edit, overstaying its welcome particularly right at the end when a sentimental indulgence creeps in that is not sold by Depp’s trademark quirky performance. It is insufficiently dramatic for this brooding and tragicomic material. It feels like he’s ‘doing Johnny Depp’ too much, rather than emoting the actual meaning and sense of the character’s serious, conflicted loss, which would be necessary to pull off this nuanced, somewhat anticlimactic ending. Overall Johnny is on so-so form, but this second incarnation as the self-proclaimed 'gonzo' journalist and literary genius Thompson is definitely not as spectacular as the first. Actingwise the movie belongs to the savage, smarmy bad guy act of Aaron Eckhart.
This is a sentimental reminiscence of the idealism of the sixties generation. As arguably all of Thompson’s work was. As journo movies go, it’s not quite up there with ‘Salvador’, ‘Naked Lunch’ or ‘I Am A Camera’, but it’s not too far off. It comes as a piece with other American Imperialism films like 'The Quiet American' and ‘Havana’. As a Hunter Thompson movie, it cannot touch Gilliam's excellent adaption of his ultimate masterpiece 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’, but it does make you want more. If however, as I would like to see, they make the entire back catalogue of Thompson’s books into films, with Depp playing the writer in all of them, he will have to up his game next time.